by Gina Knudson & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Spokane County shelter can be a tough place to work for an animal lover like Donna Versteeg. The thousands of dogs and cats she sees each year are in dire straits whether they are mangy or manicured, runaways or throwaways. Space at the shelter is limited, and the clock ticks a furious countdown to find a home for each pet.

Versteeg has days when she loathes her own species. "You can't believe the people who will drop off a pet because they say they can't afford it anymore," she said. "Then they climb back into their SUV and head for the mall!"

But just often enough, someone will come along and restore her faith in humankind -- people like Steve Smith and Alayne Marker, former Boeing employees who opted out of corporate life to turn a western Montana ranch into a sanctuary for disabled animals.

Versteeg discovered the Rolling Dog Ranch after someone brought a blind shepherd mix named Patti to the shelter a few years ago. With her head dented in and a deep jagged scar between her eyes, Patti looked like she had been hit with a shovel or hatchet. One eye was missing and the other seriously damaged. But Versteeg, who has worked at the shelter for seven years, saw beyond the dog's obvious problems. "Even though you could tell she was in pain, she was always mild tempered, gentle and affectionate," she recalled.

And, she knew, doomed. "She had such a sweet disposition, but no one gave her a second look at the shelter," she said. Patti was just another mixed breed dog, with a disability to boot. After two weeks in the shelter, the dog was scheduled to be euthanized because the shelter needed room for incoming animals. Not for the first time, Versteeg promised her mother that if she would keep Patti for a few days, she would find a home for the lovable mutt.

Miraculously, she did. Smith and Marker brought Patti to live at their 160-acre spread about an hour east of Missoula. The ranch has a surreal, almost cartoonish quality. Allie, a young bird dog with a brain disorder that affects her balance, enthusiastically flops her body toward the gate in what could pass for a Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. Travis, a blue-eyed Labrador-ish dog, seems to be leering, but the hyena-like grin is actually caused by a jaw fused shut by a rare muscle disease. In addition to these friends, Patti shares her home with about 30 other dogs, many of them deaf or blind and many of them from the Spokane County shelter. The animals have a heated cabin, acres to roam, and the unconditional love of two people who have dedicated their lives to being with them.

As Smith makes his rounds, the multi-colored menagerie presses against his legs while he talks to them, kindly but constantly, so the sightless dogs "see" him. "Touch is pretty important to these dogs," Smith explained, as a large-breed dog leans into his irrigation boots.

Since starting the sanctuary in 2000, Smith and Marker have kept a schedule that might seem like a recipe for burnout. They haven't taken a vacation in more than five years. In fact, they have left the ranch together only once, in 2002, when Alayne was sworn into the Montana Bar Association in Helena. The dogs are let out and fed first thing in the morning, as are the dozen or so resident cats. Many of the pets require medication. And, as of last count, the Rolling Dog Ranch stables 29 horses. (Twenty of them are blind.) When Arctic weather struck Montana this winter, the animals had to be let in and out almost constantly. Even so, Marker calls this new job "rejuvenating" compared to life behind a desk. The difficult part is not the backbreaking labor, she notes. "The hardest part about what we do is turning an animal down because we know when we get called we are often that animal's last option."

Donna Versteeg understands this all too well. "You obviously would like to be able to save them all, but resources and options are limited," Versteeg reasoned. "They are so limited for all of the neglected, homeless, unwanted and discarded animals that to find a place for a special needs one is even more difficult. But animals -- like people with disabilities -- can live full and happy lives. They don't need to be tossed aside because of a simple flaw."

Misconceptions persist, Marker says, but her work is a labor of love. "Sometimes I'll hear people say that it's cruel to keep a disabled animal alive. But if you look around at the animals here, you'll see they're happy. They're running, they're playing. They enjoy life."

The Rolling Dog Ranch in Ovando, Mont., is open to visitors, though by appointment only. Visit or call (406) 793-6001. The Spokane County Animal Shelter, 2521 N. Flora Rd., is open Monday through Saturday. To view adoptable pets, visit Call 477-2532.

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